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The Beauty of the Book

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Illuminated manuscripts inlaid with gold or silver leaf and spectacularly illustrated, are most often associated with the Medieval church (the Gospels, Psalters, etc), where texts were generally hand-copied until Western Europeans discovered the printing press.

The Jewish world, however, has often been influenced by its surrounding communities and it is, therefore, not at all surprising that Jewish illuminated manuscripts exist as well. Although many Jewish books and texts were destroyed in the course of Jewish history, whether by natural disintegration or, more often, in the flames of pogroms and book-burnings, many important manuscripts have been preserved. Of these, the two most famous are Haggadot.

While it is known that the Sarajevo Haggadah was created in the mid-1300s, it’s exact origins are unknown. The history of this Haggadah, however, is well established: it changed hands in 1510, there is a note from 1609 stating that the Haggadah does not speak against the Church, and, in 1892, Josef Cohen tried to sell it. It was bought by the National Museum in Sarajevo and tucked away for safe keeping due to its delicate nature. The curators even managed to keep it from the Nazis and hid it during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Haggadah was displayed for the public during Passover in 1995.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is named after the distinctive figures used in its illustrations. Creating humanoid figures with bird-like faces was one way Jewish artists avoided violating the practice of not creating images of humans. (The artist used other facial distortions as well). Discovered in 1946, the Birds’ Head Haggadah is among the oldest surviving Askenazi illuminated Haggadot (late 13th century). Its origin is placed in Southern Germany, where Jews were mandated to wear the conical “Jew’s Hat” shown on the adult male figures in the Haggadah.

*This Treat was published on April 08, 2011. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Passover.

View an image from the Sarajevo Haggadah here.

View an image from the Birds’ Head Haggadah here.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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